Play It Safe - Darren Cox

It is always a big shock when the first frosts set in, and the colour drops out of the water so quickly. The water temperatures plummet for a few weeks and the fish really are not happy about it. We get used to it fairly quickly without realising it. Fish are similar in that they get used to it, but the fact that they are cold blooded and now immersed in water that is considerably colder than previous weeks means that their metabolism will naturally slow down.

Unlike us they can’t put another layer on! Everything happens a lot slower for them in winter, especially on still waters and commercials. They certainly require less food as they don’t move about as much, and if you have ever watched fish in a garden pond in winter you see that they don’t appear to move at all. However, stay there long enough and before you realise it they will have moved very slowly over the far side away from you.

One of the most critical points to remember is the water clarity. It has been the anglers friend all summer, a wonderful canopy that gives fish so much confidence to swim around carelessly. Now the light is streaming through the clearer water and the fish will feel a lot more vulnerable.

They back away from shadows and move into safer zones, into deeper water, under any cover that may be available and certainly away from bankside vibrations. For these reasons it is so important to turn on your ‘stealth mode’. If you can be the quietest angler on the bank in terms of vibrations and shadow movement, you could be creating a safe area for fish to move into.

This is a massive edge on matches in winter, especially on commercials and narrow waters as I am certain the fish keep moving until they feel comfortable. This can mean them moving several swims on narrow venues. The quieter you are the more chance they will settle in your swim. The more you can understand how much fish back off and harness this fact, the more you will catch in winter.

Today has been a classic example at Tunnel Barn Farm. We are pleasure fishing, but there are a number of anglers on the lake. However, this creates big gaps. I started today in the knowledge that Club Lake has some big commons and mirrors in it as well as plenty of F1s.

Because we hadn’t had many frosts before my visit I had an inclination I may still be able to catch them on meat as long as I didn’t feed too much. My plan was to feed a top-two-plus-two line with five or six 6mm cubes, as well as prime a line tight to the island at 15m, and another across that was one metre off the reeds in slightly deeper water.

This covered three different depths which is very important whatever time of year you are fishing, but even more so in winter. These were plumbed up and ready but I did not feed them at the start. The idea being that I didn’t want to push any fish away that were in the swim and not feeding. This clear space without feed can help them to settle there when all around you are potting bits of bait everywhere.

I started on my short line on a piece of meat, but had noticed that there were fish blowing on the same line but way to my right towards the next swim which was empty. After five minutes and no bites on my short meat line I decided to try where these bubbles were. Within 25 minutes I had caught seven good mirrors without feeding a single bait, just going in with my bait on the hook.

But what was noticeable after three fish was that the bubbles moved slightly out and even further away from me. I automatically followed them and caught again. This quick burst at the start gave me well over 30lb which is a fantastic start to any match in winter. And whilst I fished this line I was priming the meat line in front of me with three or four cubes of meat every time I shipped out. By the time I needed this line I was getting bites from big F1s straight away.

This line needed resting regularly and when I couldn’t get a bite on the right hand swim where I caught the mirrors, I decided to feed a few cubes there too and rest it. I needed more lines to come into play which is where the far bank helps. In colder weather the first option would be to ‘dob’ some punched bread on the reed line. However, it just wasn’t cold enough yet for this.

The clearer the water the better bread becomes for both carp and F1s. Rigs are quite simple for ‘dobbing’, the most important thing is not to have any shot close to the hook, I tend to have a small spread bulk at half depth. The punched bread needs to fall at its own natural rate, which is what makes it such a deadly method in cold clear water.

I use a size 16 Garbolino Winter Silvers/Carp hook for this, it is finer and lets the bread fall more naturally. The wide gape still has a very strong hook hold, and is tied to 0.12mm Garbolino Super Soft. The elastic is 1.8mm Fighter which balances perfectly with the hook and line diameter, and will land most size fish in the cold. The far bank line is always worth rigging up for.

A lot of the swims against the island are shrouded in reeds, and are the perfect place for fish to lay in peace, even in clear shallow water in the cold. What tends to happen is you will catch one or two fish there, and then the swim will die as any other fish back away from the commotion.

When you go on this line it is very important to feed for one fish at a time. The tiniest amount of micros, or a few live maggots is all that is needed depending on what is the best choice of bait at the time. Sometimes both can work, but it is often trial and error. I will often switch baits and/or change lines if I feel it will catch me more fish.

In terms of rigs, they are not complicated, but need to be fined down, especially where F1s are concerned. The colder the temperature the less the fish will pull, so you can fish very light and still land big fish. My meat rig is a 0.20g or 0.30g DCC13, dotted to a ‘pimple’, the hook length is Garbolino Super Soft 0.12mm with a size Garbolino 16 Pellet Carp hook. It is still a nice fine rig, but the meat gives me a chance of some bigger fish which I know are present in this area.

Today I have caught fish from every line, but it’s not been easy all day. I have really had to work hard to keep fish coming, and that will be even more difficult in match conditions. But, by covering all your bases, and leaving some big ‘safe’ areas where the fish can back of to, you should still give yourself a chance to catch a few fish from several different lines, which is so important.

As is always the case with commercials, carp and F1s will still often come into the nearside margins right at the end as the light starts to fade. I will usually feed either side margin as you can never tell which will be better. Sometimes a line which is a good metre or more off the bank can be much better, especially on clear bright days. The fish will sneak here with no signs, when they won’t move tight to the bank.

In this session I have caught on maggots, pellets and meat over three different depths. This is an ideal scenario, as I can rotate swims without plundering them. This means I can always come back to every line and expect to catch more fish from them. In match conditions it rarely happens like this, but it is still so important to cover all your options, as you never know which will and won’t work. But through the session you can hopefully pick up the pattern forming and make the best of your swim.